My “Sounding Good” Era of Life

Hmmm, I seem to be on a roll these days.

While I want everyone who plays hammered dulcimer and autoharp to sound good, those last two words have become my mantra in recent years.  There is no hocus-pocus, super-duper-expensive instrument or special talent that comes with sounding good.  We simply need to know how to do what to do.  In other words: we sound good when we intend to, with a little know-how.

The last couple of months, teaching my students to sound good suddenly got easier.  It’s made teaching fun and exciting for me, and for each of my students!  I don’t know why it took so long to reach this new level, but I am thankful to be here.


Today’s hammered dulcimer student, Angie, obliterated an annoying, deep, discordant thud from her dulcimer.  Yes, that ugly thud is gone!  All dulcimers have a certain degree of thud; there is no getting around it.  It turns out, though, that the deepness of this off-pitched thud was coming from her, which her dulcimer gave back to our ears.

To identify thud’s cause, I decided to ask her to slow way down the tempo of the latest jig she’s been working on, “Top of the Cork Road.”  I don’t normally ask students to play as slowly as she did today because playing slowly and lyrically is challenging.  But by asking Angie to play really slowly, I saw and heard where the thud was coming from.  With a little solution coaching, Angie’s dulcimer sang back to us beautifully in short order.  What a joy to our ears!

Oh, sure, every now and then that deep thud reared its sneaky little head once more.  With some focused listening to her body as well as her playing, Angie made it go away again.  (What was the brand of the dulcimer?  It doesn’t matter.  The thud was tied up in the body moves.)

I think now about those hammered dulcimer players out there who may not like the sound of their dulcimers.  If this is you, consider this story as a possible reason why.  (If you’ve been thinking about “upgrading” to a “better” dulcimer, give this a try first.)

There are all kinds of elements that go into a dulcimer’s sound quality: hammer design/weight/balance, the design of the hammer handle, hammer hold (both in shape and degree of freedom/security), dulcimer tilt/height, listening (the ear must be turned on to hear the results), and movement (in body as well as arms)….  Then comes the dulcimer. (Click here for a good batch of information.)

I began studying the elements of resonant dulcimer sound over 35 years ago, and am still studying it, and finding more elements.  The details have clarified over the years, just as one would hope. (These are well beyond finding the right notes, by the way.)  Details will continue to clarify, as long as I remain open to process and keep listening.

It’s wonderful to lead my students along the path of sounding good.  There is no special secret to it, and now it’s easier than ever for me to teach and for them to learn.  I hope those of you seeking good sound want to know How, because this can be taught; no one need ever guess at it.  And when your instrument sounds good, it will make all the difference to those of us who listen to the music you make.

Sound good (there I go again),